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Sorghum could prove valuable

Written by Saige

Producers across the state often struggle with diversifying their operations, whether for environmental or financial reasons. Diversification can create a more efficient and profitable operation, according to economists, but with a variety of harsh environments and short growing seasons found throughout the state, crop production can become a difficult task in the pursuit to diversification.

Today, sorghum may provide an answer for some. While sorghum is largely unused in Wyoming, it can provide many benefits to producers who choose to utilize it, according to the United Sorghum Checkoff (USC). Different types of sorghum, including grain, forage, sweet and biomass, provide numerous options to meet production goals.  

USC adds that sorghums grown for forage could potentially provide a great service to Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers, both in crop production and in meeting livestock nutritional needs. Forage sorghum can be utilized for grazing, hay production, silage and green-chop, making it versatile for many agriculturists’ needs.

Growing forage sorghum

Sorghum is among the most efficient crops in solar-energy conversion and water usage, USC says, adding the crop is also known for its drought tolerance and nutritive value.

“For maximum production, I like to say it will use a third less water in comparison to corn,” Brent Bean, United Sorghum Checkoff Agronomy Program director, says.

Forage sorghum provides many benefits that may have never been considered by farmers and ranchers in Wyoming before. 

“Forage sorghums are typically used in silage production whereas sorghum sudangrasses are grazed or harvested for hay,” USC Animal Nutrition Director Kim McCuistion says.

“I think especially for a hay crop or grazing, it’s something producers in Wyoming should be considering,” Bean says. “If producers wanted to graze it or cut it for hay, then they could grow forage sorghum or sorghum sudangrass fairly successfully throughout Wyoming.”

Alternatives

An option that can be explored by Wyoming producers is the use of forage sorghum rather than alfalfa.

“It certainly uses a lot less water than alfalfa,” Bean says. “Forage sorghum is not a perennial crop, so producers aren’t tying that ground up for several years. They could hay it once and let it grow some, then let it die to use it as a cover crop going into their next growing season.”

Forage sorghum doesn’t require any additional inputs compared to other crops traditionally grown in Wyoming, making it ideal for crop rotations and grazing operations around the state. 

Planting considerations

To make it successful, Bean recommends 70,000 plants per acre are used in irrigation situations and between 45,000 and 50,000 plants per acre in dryland situations for silage production. 

For hay or grazing, sorghum sudangrass varieties are typically planted at higher seeding rates. 

“It is very important that producers use a good preemergence herbicide,” Bean says. “Preemergence is very important for weed control with sorghum since it doesn’t have nearly the amount of postemergence herbicides available compared to corn.”

A potential disadvantage of forage sorghum is the required soil temperature. Forage sorghum requires at least 60 degrees, whereas corn only needs 50 degrees for germination. 

Even so, forage sorghum should still have plenty of growing season, Bean says. If the length of growing season is a concern, then shorter maturing varieties are available. 

As a feedstuff

Sorghums grown for forage can be used in a variety of ways as a feedstuff for Wyoming’s major livestock species like beef cattle and sheep. From grazing to silage, forage sorghum can be a versatile crop that can support many types of livestock operations throughout the state.

In many situations, forage sorghum can replace corn silage as a feed because they are comparable in nutritional content. Differences in nutritive value often relate to hybrid selection, overall management and maturity at harvest, adds USC.

“When we look at the research studies comparing forage sorghum and corn silage and see a difference in animal performance, often it’s because forage sorghum was substituted on a one-for-one basis and the rest of the diet remained unchanged,” McCuistion says. “Nutritionists should reformulate the ration to account for any nutritional differences between silage sources.”

In a cow/calf or sheep operation, sorghum sudangrass can prove extremely valuable.

“I believe sorghum sudangrasses grown for hay are a viable option because producers should harvest greater tonnage than alfalfa or other hay options,” McCuistion says.

Grazing

The crop can also be grazed. 

However, a few forages, including sorghum varieties, can potentially cause prussic acid poisoning or nitrate toxicity in livestock that consume them. Both prussic acid and nitrates are potential problems in sorghums but can be easily managed.   

“To prevent issues with prussic acid, avoid grazing young, drought-stressed, frosted or damaged sorghum plants,” McCuistion says. “Likewise, to reduce nitrate issues, don’t over fertilize with nitrogen or turn cattle out to eat drought stressed or slow growing plants.”

Prussic acid poisoning can be prevented by allowing the plant to mature before grazing.  

“A good rule of thumb is if the sorghum is higher than our knee, then we can turn cattle out,” McCuistion says. “Typically sorghum that is 24 to 30 inches in height is safe to graze.”

More information on University of Wyoming study looking at the use of forage sorghum in Wyoming will be available in next week’s Roundup.

  Matthew Winterholler is an intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. He is a Gillette native and attends Texas Tech University. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..